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Loney as good as it gets for Rays

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Published:   |   Updated: May 14, 2013 at 02:28 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

In a corner of the visiting clubhouse in Baltimore there are a couple of tables, each holding a couple of computer screens. James Loney pulled up a chair along that small row the last time the Rays were in town and went looking for someone he hadn't seen a while — James Loney.

Searching for a way out of an early-season slump that saw his batting average dip to .167, Loney watched video of himself as a Los Angeles Dodger. He saw singles up the middle and doubles into the gaps. He watched himself hit the occasional home run.

Loney saw a hitter who could hit.

“I was really trying to see how it looks and repeating that,” Loney said.

Over the next two nights, Loney had six hits in eight at-bats. He hit two doubles and slugged his first home run of the season. He drove in four runs and scored three times.

It would be cliché to say Loney hasn't stopped hitting since those video sessions, except he really hasn't. He has had only five hitless games since then and never on back-to-back days.

“He's been our hottest hitter,” said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, a pretty hot hitter himself.

And maybe that's why.

With the red-hot Loney batting behind him, Longoria finally has someone to offer protection on a daily basis.

In 24 games, beginning with a 3-for-3 night at Camden Yards, Loney is batting .456 with nine doubles and 16 RBIs. He raised his average from .167 to .376.

The question is: Can Loney, a career .282 hitter, keep this up? Maybe not the high-.300 average, but the steady production?

“I think he can because he uses the whole field,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Loney experienced similar stretches during his Dodger days.

“Pitches that I'm supposed to be hitting I feel like I'm hitting pretty well, and tough pitches I'm battling and getting hits here and there,” he said. “It's a combination.”

Longoria was excited when the Rays signed Loney to a one-year contract in December. Given what he knew of Loney's ability to hit and the Rays' track record with reclamation projects (Carlos Peña in 2007, Casey Kotchman in 2011, Jeff Keppinger in 2012), Longoria figured the team had added a bat that would perk up the offense.

“So it's no surprise to me that he's having the success that he is,” Longoria said. “Obviously he's one of the focal points of our offense right now.”

Defensively, Loney is making Gold Glove plays at first base.

“I believe he should just be in the lineup every day solely based off (his defense),” Longoria said, “because this team has always been built around pitching and defense. Offensively, he's been as good as it gets.”

Loney was available to the Rays when the Boston Red Sox let him go early last offseason. The key player who went from the Dodgers to the Red Sox in the blockbuster trade last August between the two teams, Loney hit only .230 in Boston. He was batting .254 with the Dodgers before the trade.

It wasn't his best year, Loney will admit.

“Sometimes you've got to go through that,” he said. “I think it's happened for a reason. I think it's great for me to be in this situation with this team, this organization. I'm glad it happened. I felt like a change was going to be good for me last year. I'm definitely blessed to be here and be in this situation. I like it.”

Loney is the quiet man in the Rays clubhouse, content to move around unnoticed wearing his black Oakland Raiders “Just Win Baby” T-shirt.

Maddon said there is a fire burning inside Loney, which he glimpses at times. One of those times was in Texas, when Loney popped out of the dugout to argue the infamous inning-ending called third strike on Ben Zobrist.

When asked what gets him fired up, Loney said, “It depends what it is. It's got to be something that's blatant or very extreme or doesn't make sense. I don't like it when things don't make sense. That call didn't make any sense.”

When asked what gets him excited, Loney said, “My exciting time will be winning the World Series. That's when I would, I would … ah … we'd have some fun. It will be a good time.”

Just win, baby.

And keep hitting.


rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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